There is Nothing New Under the Sun

This is the title of a series of commentaries I’ll be writing with the common focus of relating contemporary events to similar ones in the past. The inspiration for it is taken from the famous passage in Ecclesiastes, a wisdom book in the Tanakh (Old Testament) containing the reflections of a King of Jerusalem. It is either deeply pessimistic about the meaning of life and the ability of humans to know and to do good, or it is positive and life-affirming, given the many references to living with humility and according to certain principles.

The particular passage that follows can be taken to mean that though things are always changing in human affairs, there is a common core to our nature and that of the world. This constancy explains why many patterns repeat themselves, and how the most important questions and values that we have are enduring.

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
What profit has a man from all his labour
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another
generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
And turns to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
All the rivers run into the sea
Yet the sea is not full
To the place from which the river comes,
There they will return again.
All things are full of labour;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun,
Is there anything of which it may be said,
‘See this is new’?
It has already been in ancient times before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come
By those who will come after.
(Ecclesiastes: 1.1:1.11)

In terms of ‘substance’, there can only be reconfiguration ‘under the sun’, but nothing truly ‘new’.

I first took serious note of this phenomenon that everyone is familiar with in some form or another after hearing two nearly identical phrases appear in contexts separated by thousands of years.

Today, we sometimes think that every successive generation has it better than the rest, thus the phrase grumbled by parents in reference to their thankless children, “When I was a kid, we used to walk 10 kilometres uphill to school…both ways…in the snow!” Another common one is the idea that kids these days are far more disrespectful, dishonourable, degenerate, lazy, and every other vice imaginable.

These types of expressions seem to be justified more and more insofar as the material, and social circumstances of subsequent generations improve at an increasing rate, the result of democratic capitalism, and technological advancement. It seems that there is less need for certain virtues as circumstances improve, and technologies, processes and institutions step in to ‘solve’ problems for people so that they no longer have to. This can be said to lead to a hollowing out of character.

It turns out the Greek poet Hesiod and his contemporaries thought similar things in the 8th century B.C. “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.”

If we concede this comparison, then generational differences might be largely perceptual, or fluctuate with the times in an ebb and flow, or even cyclical manner.

Hence, the idea that though some things are new, much remains the same. What exactly is new under the sun, and what is old?

In this series, I’ll try to take a good look at similar statements and phenomena that are separated by time, place, and culture, and sort out the similarities from the differences, in order to shed some more light on the eternal challenge of reconciling the conservation of the old, with the constant need to change and adapt to new circumstances.

The hope is that some common patterns will emerge upon which to base sound principles and practices pertaining to politics, public and social life.

2 comments

  1. I’ve definitely heard the 10 km walk to school/work story before and many like it. One example makes me laugh now about weather. My parents argued that I do not know true cold weather and that the UK could get far worse with the damp cold. It would chill you to the bones at night and you would see ice on the inside of the house. As you know, we’re now living in Canada where I was born and I think we know a thing or two about cold weather. There’s always the constant clash of generations saying one had it better than the other. It makes for good dinner debates haha.

    Like

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